As US animation titans such as DreamWorks set up business in China, a local studio is hoping the fortunes of a plucky goat will take the battle for box office supremacy straight to its big rivals.
Imagi — a company that almost went bankrupt after the dismal failure of its take on the Japanese TV series Astro Boy in 2009 — is home to the champion of China’s animation industry: Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf (喜羊羊與灰太狼).
Based on the antics of a goat called Pleasant and his valiant bid to thwart a scheming wolf, the franchise has produced four films in the past four years taking a combined domestic box office haul of 548 million yuan (US$87 million). In terms of animated films screening in China, that amount has only been bettered by DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda (功夫熊貓) franchise, whose two films have commanded takings of 744 million yuan since the original’s release in 2008.
“We welcome competition, we are looking forward to it,” said Soh Szu Wei (蘇思偉), executive director of Hong Kong-based Imagi International Holdings Ltd (意馬國際控股) that owns the Pleasant Goat franchise, which has also been spun-off into a television series. “We have broken away from the locals. We are now competing with the internationals.”
The Chinese box office expanded by about 30 percent last year, meaning it accounted for an estimated 13 billion yuan in takings, third in the world behind Japan and the first-placed US and closing fast.
That potential has encouraged DreamWorks to set up its very own Chinese operations. In February, the company announced it was forming a Shanghai-based partnership with China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment.
It hopes to get its Shanghai studio up and running by the final quarter this year, with the first productions slated for release in 2016.
The Hollywood giant could not have chosen a better setting for its operations in China, Hong Kong-based film historian Jacob Wong (王慶鏘) said.
“China has a glorious history of animation, especially the Shanghai film studios in the 1960s, but it has been a while since they have had a major success,” said Wong, who programmed the Animation Unlimited segment of this year’s Hong Kong International Film festival. “In those days, the shorts they made were reminiscent of classic Chinese water-ink paintings and they really were beautiful. These days, Chinese studios are doing the animation process and post-production for a lot of people, they are mostly concentrating on the technical side of things.”
While few studios are making feature films, “films such as Legend of a Rabbit [兔俠傳奇] may be a sign of things to come,” he said.
Released last year and bearing a striking similarity to Kung Fu Panda, Legend of a Rabbit was a flop at the domestic box office, returning only an estimated US$1.5 million of its rumored US$12 million budget.
However, in terms of animation technique, the film showed that Chinese studios were closing the gap on the high-quality on-screen imagery audiences have come to expect from the likes of DreamWorks and its US rival Pixar.
Soh said that partnerships with international film industry players will help develop Chinese cinema and its reach.
Imagi collected the Pleasant Goat franchise when it bought out China’s Toon Express Group (動漫火車集團) last year. Last month, it announced a deal with the Disney group to take the character’s television series to 46 territories across the Asia-Pacific region.